Lulama Ngalo-Morrison - On Academic Success, and Recognizing Students’ Strengths
Lulama Ngalo-Morrison might have been one of the oldest students at this UWC’s Spring Graduation 2017, but her energy and passion belie her age - and she knows more about the factors underlying student struggles and success than just about anybody.
On Tuesday, the 69-year-old former Executive Dean of Student Affairs at the University of Fort Hare received her PhD for her thesis examining Factors that influence academic attainment of sponsored students in South African higher education system: A strength-based approach.
Her words rush away from her as she tries to convey the depth of her passion for this nation’s young people, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds.
“It is about the potential and resilience of our young people,” she says. “Every child has a dream that just needs to be nurtured.”
Her study critiques explanations of academic performance that locate the problem (often seen as a “lack of something”) in the student, rather than the environment.
“I wanted to know what makes them resilient and even do so well academically regardless of rare financial support from their families.”
Her work with students at Fort Hare inspired her to look beyond that. Often, she says, they were parentless and heading households long before such burdens of responsibilities should have been theirs to carry. Other times, they would be the children of uneducated parents who wanted better lives for them.
With that in mind, her work shifts the focus away from “disadvantage” and “fixing deficits”, towards academic success - and recognizing students’ strengths.
By looking at the academic trajectories of sponsored students at UWC, Ngalo-Morrison illustrates how they are positively influenced by institutional supports (financial; academic; psychosocial) and nurturing campus environments that recognize students’ dignity, agency and responsibility.
Lifelong Learning: Experience and Education, All Around the World
Her own life story reflects these notions of resilience and responsibility rather strongly.
Hailing from Sterkspruit in the Eastern Cape, Ngalo-Morrison led a nomadic existence since she was 27, when she left South Africa for political exile. Leaving a baby daughter behind, Ngalo-Morrison first fled to Nigeria after her late brother was arrested trying to cross the border to Botswana,. Her daughter, taken to her sister-in-law in Lesotho, joined her six months later.
Having studied social work in South Africa, she began her lifelong interest in education by taking on a degree in special education.
She and her family, declared stateless persons by the United Nations, sought refuge in Canada - but were rejected. Instead, through her former husband, they settled in New Zealand.
But with the dawn of democracy in South Africa, the call of home grew too strong, and Ngalo-Morrison returned to take up a position at Fort Hare.
Having retired just last month as Executive Director of Old Mutual’s educational trust, where she worked for nearly a decade, doesn’t mean that she’s going to be slowing down just yet.
There is a thesis to be published, books to be written, discussion to be had - and of course, her work with young people. She is a trustee for the Resilience Network Institute, working with schools from Cape Town townships to empower high school learners to pursue higher education.
Her advice to those young people is both simple and important.
“You can realise any dream,” she says. “Just never lose hope.”